Delightful things, February 19, 2020

Today, a food edition:

  1. The experience of “seasoning to taste” – gauging the difference before adding that sprinkle of salt or dash of citrus and after it; sensing the layers of a flavor gradually unfurling with every little adjustment.
  2. Adjunct to that: the long and gradual process of learning what seasonings DO. Learning that the presence of one flavor can enhance another, that sweetness can counter and elaborate on heat, that the vague sense of something missing in a dish is often acidity (and that a dash of apple cider vinegar can convert an already perfectly tasty goulash into a superlative one.)
  3. Layers in a laminated pastry, the ones you’ll see in a well-crafted croissant. The way the crisp edges crinkle between the teeth, little valleys embracing half-melted butter and lacings of sweet-tart jam. Knowing that this, somehow, has been rendered from a heap of flour.
  4. “Blooming” pour-over coffee, pouring hot water over ground beans to encourage them to release any gases trapped in the grounds. They expand, bubbling, releasing a wave of that rich coffee scent.
  5. Watching milk fold into coffee or strong black tea, a kind of fractal swirling that mellows into something softer and warmer. It tames acidity, affects heat retention…and, of course, it’s delicious.

Kentucky Route Zero, Act 1: Roll with it.

These are some thoughts on the first act of indie video game Kentucky Route Zero, which just recently – after almost a decade – finally released its fifth and final act. With all of the story available, we can at last begin.

For the curious, here’s the trailer.

This is not the real Kentucky.

I have been to the real Kentucky, as a kid; back in the days when becoming a park ranger was one of my big dreams. Mammoth Cave is here, somewhere; there’s a road that bears its name, and somewhere in my childhood home is a battered caving helmet I returned with as a souvenir from my first wild caving trip.

But this isn’t that Kentucky.

In this Kentucky, trees that burn forever are just part of the landscape. A landmark, like a corner store or a little white clapboard church or one of those memorial plaques for someone whose name rings a bell, in a vague and distant sort of way. This is just where we turn left.

In this Kentucky, there are people playing a mysterious game (Dungeons and Dragons?) in the basement, in the dark, and being unable to see doesn’t seem to bother them. They don’t seem to see me either, even with the lights on. I’m not quite sure if that should bother me.

Ah, well. We roll with it.

—-

The first episode of Kentucky Route Zero is quiet, but not shy about announcing what it is. A man named Conway is making a delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive, and stops for directions at one of those kitschy retro service stations, the one you’ve seen in screenshots if you’re in the habit of following gaming publications: Equus Oils, with the huge and dramatic horse’s head. Immediately I wonder if the name is just a reference to the horse, or to the play – but happily our hero’s eyes are in the usual places, at least for now.

The power is off, because the power is always off in games; the owner seems oddly unconcerned about this, perfectly content to lounge in an antique chair and chat with whoever happens by. Maybe they don’t really sell gas here? Maybe it doesn’t matter.

He has some thoughts about how to get where we’re going, though. We have to take the Zero.

Nobody bats an eye at the impossible number. If that’s where we have to go, then that’s where we have to go. That’s all. We roll with it.

—-

Everything about this presentation seems calculated precisely to lull the player into a kind of meditative dream-state. Visuals are spare, with a careful calculation of angle and lighting and colour and perhaps especially darkness that is striking without taking you out of the moment. Music is quietly lovely – here a surprising little folk song, there a kind of eerie electronic thrumming.

Everywhere I am encouraged to take my time. The spiderweb of little side-roads on my map – none of them the Zero, but it must be there somewhere, unless it mustn’t – is peppered with encounters that have the feel of those tiny little dream-fragments one wakes up with when the alarm jangles in. But the alarm isn’t coming, not here, and when the fragment is over, here is the map once more, and I am no wiser about where I am than I was before. Though perhaps I have learned a little more about Conway.

In a way that seems to be the point, really. I can’t help but notice how the decisions we’re making have a lot more to do with what kind of person our hero is and what’s behind him than what’s before him. We’ve chosen to take this ride, and we’re going where it’s going; it is our own perceptions we change with our decision-making.

We roll with it.

Irresolute

The new year’s started, and I have an afternoon to myself, and I have done a Productive Thing this morning already. Several, actually; a long-overdue closet clean-out, a thorough vacuuming in the bedroom, some maintenance on this very site to get its PHP up to date and everything in tidy working order.

It feels very…efficient. Sensible. Practical.

…Strangely unsatisfying. But I haven’t written in a little while, and should do that as well, so here I am.

What am I doing, here? Writing words into the void where literally nobody will see them? I don’t have a Brand to build; I’m not “creating content” that people will want to see or participate in on YouTube; I am told, over and over and over again, that nobody reads anymore, that this is why even an email three lines long is too much for heaven’s sake, let alone the amount I can write when I get going.

What am I doing? What is the point of this endeavor?

I am not one of those people who has a book in me, or at least I don’t think so; I know several of them. They are full of a drive toward something; scenes haunt them in their sleep, dialogue springs up unbidden when they are in the shower or stirring a pot of tomato sauce on the stove.

I don’t have that. Not quite. A drive, yes; an urge toward Making in a general sort of way that cooking kind of sort of helps to satisfy a little, though it does not feel like enough. “Enough” is a completely preposterous word for it; it doesn’t feel right. Enough. Ridiculous. Can you feed a fire “enough?”

I want to do…something; but here my invention fails me absolutely every single time, proving to me over and over and over again that I am just not really a creative person, not like the ones I can see on the internet – or, hell, invite for dinner – all various shades of struggling quietly toward a goal, or hustling like mad toward it in some cases.

What am I doing? What am I doing? What am I doing?

There never seems to be any good answer to that. One cannot make a convincing Kickstarter pitch for “fuck, I don’t know, trying to express myself and hoping something comes of it?”

Though that’s it, I guess. In the absence of a “real” dream, doing something, ANYthing, so that I do not feel quite so much as though I have been shapeshifted into a form I don’t quite recognize without anybody noticing, quietly doing the things that need doing to get by and support the people around me, wondering if the interior life I experience can properly be considered any more real than the things I was talking about in reality TV earlier.

And I don’t really know who I can talk to about it; very well then, let’s talk to nobody here. Or maybe everybody. Who knows.

I want to really feel like myself. Whatever that means.

But first I have to make lunch. For some reason, today that makes me laugh.

“Reality” tv.

It always seems it ought to be in quotes, doesn’t it; so much of it is every bit as staged and carefully framed as the elaborate fictions that make up our modern-day “Peak TV” landscape.

You have your major sub-genres of it – as far as I can tell, these are “Humans behave very badly to one another,” “Purposefully spectacular transformation,” and “Clash of skills” – though of course these do bleed into one another.

I’ve never had much interest in the first of these – people are quite awful enough to one another without me seeking that out on purpose – but I will confess to a bit of a weakness for a show or two here and there from the latter two categories.

I mean, even as I am aware exactly how choreographed Queer Eye probably is – surely must be, because almost nothing in real life moves through an arc that clear and direct – it’s hard to resist the appeal of the idea.  The super-team of kind and clever folk who sweep in to teach a struggling person how to love themselves and live their truth…who isn’t at least a little into that?

The Great British Bake-Off presents us with an alternate universe in which everything is cheery pavilions lined with bunting and delicious-looking desserts and the very worst thing that can possibly happen to you is that a pleasant grandmotherly British person tells you that perhaps that sponge was a bit too dry.

Masterchef is ostensibly a competition based on pure skill, one where the primary appeal is watching the food being made and the hosts’ by-play.  Watching people cook is enjoyable, of course; as I was once told by a tour guide in Prague “There are three things you can watch forever.  The sea, fire, and other people working.”  It’s true, and watching people at work is as compelling here as it is anywhere else, but unlike a normal cooking show, this one comes haunted by vague uncertainty.

How much of this is true? How much of any of this is real?

That’s just it, of course.  The answer is “none of it”; despite the label we give the genre, this kind of thing isn’t a documentary even in aspiration. Reality only in the sense that what we see has the trappings of reality.  The names may be real, the places.  The products placed just so in the scenario are almost certainly real, whether or not the effects attributed to them are.

It’s an escape, every bit as much as the most grandiose fantasy film or the most elaborately-constructed romance.  Perhaps it’s a little bit more palatable to some folks if their escape hatch of choice looks a little bit more like what they see every day.  We all need the escapes, for sure; the world is dark enough.  Hard enough.

Tuning in, I find myself caught up in the doublethink of it all – it’s real, it’s not real, does it matter whether it’s real? – and also a sort of vague, ill-defined shame.  I’m not supposed to find anything to like there at all; isn’t it a bit like I’ve been caught devouring an entire pint of ice cream on the sofa in my pajamas?  Don’t I have artistic aspirations, however poorly-defined they may be?  Shouldn’t I be queueing up something a bit more challenging?

But there are plenty of days when I feel too exhausted, after the office and the household planning and management and the constant encroachment of day-to-day nonsense on every little corner of my brain, no matter how it craves to do other things.

And sometimes, on days like that, it is pleasant to look at spectacular cake.

Another first date

So here’s a little project that’s meant to help me break through a bit of…something. I would call it a creative block, if that were fitting – if I had that One Great Story in me, blocked only by an unfortunate convergence of words. Or perhaps a failed convergence. (Would “divergence” be better? No matter.)

A reconnection, maybe. Hopefully. 500 words, semi-regularly, about…anything I can manage to muster 500 words about. To see what happens if I try it. To see if anything happens if I try it.

To see if I can even DO it. I’ve tried before, with less ambitious goals.

And so, blank page, here we are. How is it that we can have had so many first dates and yet it is still as awkward as ever?

Somehow I didn’t get rained on en route home today, despite it being the sort of weather one sees described in books as “leaden.” Thick, gray clouds heaving water down onto earth too lethargic to groan under the weight; damp heat creeping up and in and under your clothes and into your lungs until lying down and choking under it starts to seem like a viable option.

Not that I did; instead I walked home past the squirrels busily ferrying walnuts to parts unknown and the sodden playground and the incongruous, hilarious “Thug Lyfe” someone has written with a stick, or a finger, in the pavement – printed letters in a schoolroom-tidy hand that is about as far removed from said Thug Lyfe as I am from ancient Phoenicia.

Though I guess Phoenicia did give us our alphabet, after a fashion, so perhaps it’s not as far as all that, if you look at it a certain way?

And now we’ve talked about the weather. Might as well tick off all the awkward-date boxes.

…So. How about those sportsball scores?

Somewhere behind me, out in the dark, a little colony of rabbits is getting on about its business. I see one every so often, loping across the garden path in the twilight – though only the one. There must be more, but where? I wonder whose shed they live behind, or under; I wonder if they live a kind of urban Watership Down life, telling and retelling stories of El-ahrairah as burlesque or beat poetry to one another so that the generations of rabbits after them will at least know the tales of those stars the streetlamps are too bright to let them see.

They’re just rabbits, I hear in my head as I write that. It’s a sensible, practical voice, the same one that reminds me that I need to buy milk and that I forgot to finish that thing at the office and didn’t the dryer beep about, oh, thirty minutes ago?

Perhaps that’s where all the creativity has gone – drowned in an ocean of to-do lists and sensible shoes, weighed down by a five-pound bag of flour and old clothes that never fit and yet wore through and about eighteen billion lost pens.

Perhaps this is foolish. It certainly feels that way. Like an excellent way of saying something stupid, of making someone angry with me, of bringing down on my head wrath or scorn or shame.

Maybe there is nothing to find?

If there were, would I know it if I found it?

…Ah, well.

Alea iacta est.

Of sunless things

So some friends of ours have expressed an interest in going to this, perhaps making it into a road trip of a couple of weeks or so. I’m not that much of a hot air balloon person, and I’m really not the kind of morning person I think you’d need to be in order to be feeling gleeful at the prospect of getting up at 3:30 AM for a morning event (ouch), but on the other hand it seems like the sort of thing that might be worth doing at least once in your life…so it looks like I’ve got some trip planning research ahead of me.

In other news, we’ve recently started the sequel to Failbetter Games’s Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies. The first game is gloriously niche – you pilot a tiny ship through a vast underground cavern dotted here and there with islands and heavily populated with menaces ranging from your standard pirates to terrifying Lovecraftian horrors. As you sail, you encounter dozens of weird and entertaining little storylets – mini-plots for all of your officers, and on each island a little thicket of tales to explore that highlight the creativity of the worldbuilding. There’s a range of victory conditions to pursue, too, ranging from the somewhat mundane (become fabulously wealthy!) to the enticingly mysterious (join an adventurer in a quest to pass through the Avid Horizon, a frigid and desolate place containing a gate to…somewhere. We loved it.

And yet we’ve only finished one of its many victory conditions. Why? Because it’s a roguelike, a decision that I still find baffling. Dying and returning to the start of something makes sense for many games, but not for one where a death can easily wipe out twenty hours of gameplay. Moreover, it can be intensely frustrating to have to re-do the first part of all of your quests many many many times before living long enough to see the end of them, setting up a weird dynamic where you find yourself rushing to try to complete things before a horror from below rips your tiny ship in half. (I’ve learned there’s a mod available that can mitigate this somewhat by not re-setting quest progress on death; this might be worth a go if i want to read more of the game’s stories.)

The second game is a roguelike as well, sadly, though they’ve made the wise decision to make the goodies you can pass on to your next captain more generous. (There IS a more merciful game mode that permits save-scumming, but naturally with Mark on the team we couldn’t go for that one.) That said, our only death so far was wiped out by the game’s locking up on us (it seems that there are some growing pains with version 1.0 as it emerges from Early Access.) There’s gamepad support this time, though it feels rather janky – it’s startlingly difficult to keep your vessel moving in a straight line. Hopefully kinks that will be smoothed out as the release progresses.

This installment in the…is it a franchise now?…takes as its premise the notion that someone, at least, was successful in passing through the Avid Horizon as I mentioned above – and as it turned out, what was beyond that was a skyscape full of new wonders. And terrors, because obviously.

Ten years on, control of the skies is a battle between The Establishment and the scrappy colonists who believe this new frontier is rightly theirs. This conflict forms the backdrop for your own story, which begins with you as first officer on a small but scrappy sky-train recently returned from the land of the dead (somehow.) The voyage did not go well for the former captain, who as the game begins is dying of…something, a strange illness that covers her skin in glowing sigils. In exchange for passing the ship on to you, she requests a promise: take the black box in the ship’s hold to New London, and do not open it.

And then she is gone, and the ship is yours, skeleton crew and all. Good luck, captain.

It’s a fairly cracking beginning really, and I’m hopeful that the rest of it will be as divertingly, endearingly weird as its predecessor. Thus far, the skies aren’t quite as oppressively dark and lonely as the Sunless Sea once was – the art’s rather lovely, honestly, and does a good job suggesting layers of possibly-infinite space despite the two dimensional plane your locomotive-ship actually moves in. But the writing’s been as inventively bizarre as ever, thus far, and we’ve got a lot of new lands to discover. Until we die or go irrevocably mad, of course.

So…more of the same, rather, I suppose. But I’m all right with that.

Onward.

Lemmings rushing to the slaughter

Today’s word of the day: “Malaphor.” This is a combination of “metaphor” and “malapropism,” and appears in such forms as:

  • “It’s not rocket surgery.”
  • “I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it.”
  • The title of this post

…and so on.  I use some of these myself quite deliberately, so I suppose I am not precisely helping to maintain the purity of the language.

This is courtesy of the very-delightful podcast The Allusionist, which I recommend to anyone else who enjoys wordy goodness; host Helen Zaltzman is whimsical and nerdy in proportions I very much enjoy.  Link there goes to the episode I listened to this morning; recommended for a listen if you have a spare twenty minutes or so.

As often seems to happen, nature appears to have suddenly remembered mid-January that it is supposed to be winter, and dumped an alarmingly huge pile of snow on our heads; as I walked to meet everyone for ramen last night the wind was constantly sweeping fistful after fistful of vicious glitter into my face. 

Today: piles everywhere of blinding white, some nearly as tall as I am.  (Miracle of miracles: the TTC ran like a dream this morning, and I secured a seat within a single stop.  I can only guess that perhaps most folk stayed home today.)

I’m not looking forward to the shoveling, but it IS rather lovely to look at…

As it turns out, I’m pretty bad at this.

This “blogging on the regular” thing, that is. Still, I’m going to give it a shot, once again: no merit in abusing myself for not doing it, so let’s set that aside and carry on.

As I type, it’s a frosty late-January afternoon – the laundry is on, there’s cauliflower roasting for tonight’s soup, foccacia bread is rising, and Mark is doing his best to locate some creepy swamp people in Red Dead Redemption 2. Outside, Nature has elected to dump a blinding-white powdery snow on top of everything. Probably I OUGHT to be shoveling it.

I am not shoveling it. Instead I am having a second coffee, though I will likely regret the not-shoveling later on.

The plan is: Two hundred words, most days. About anything. I can do that, surely; I can use up two hundred words writing an email to re-schedule a meeting. Build a routine, and therefore a habit.

I think the first order of business shall be to do a few improvements around here. I’m no graphic designer, but at least I can make sure all the proper plugins are installed and such.

In the meantime, here’s one of the songs that’s been an earworm for me lately:

Reading right now:

Playing right now:


Day 5: Nach Wien

(Above: Catbun enjoying a last look at the goldfish in our room.)

We had one more sight to see today before leaving Prague, since our train wasn’t until the early afternoon: the Museum of Medieval Art, conveniently housed in the convent of the Sisters of St. Agnes, just a short walk from our hotel.

I’ll be a little sad to say goodbye to the Maximilian; we had a lovely stay there even accounting for the mysterious lack of top sheets and indifferent-if-extant air conditioning that haunts Europe generally. Happily, there was safe storage for our luggage, so after our checkout we made our way through the streets one last time and entered the little cloister.

This is still a working convent, I believe, though I did not see anyone wearing religious garb – and what remains of the old convent’s interior is just that – an interior, with very little in the way of furnishings or signifiers to indicate that one room was once much different from another. But the main reason one is there is, of course, the art, so let’s get to that.

It’s medieval art, and from that we can assume a number of common traits: religious subject matter, frequently anonymous artists, a wide and varied range of degrees of mastery when it comes to things like perspective and naturalism.

Oh, and photobombs. Usually by angels. You would seriously be surprised juuuuust how often in medieval art an angel is like “oh hey, guys!” and pops into the picture at a random angle that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with much of what’s going on in the pictures.

Some of the art is legitimately beautiful and contemplative; it’s easy to imagine how in the gray-brown world of the medieval peasant the church may well have been the only place where one was able to see beautiful things. One of the only places, perhaps I should say. There were always the flowers of the field, and the sky after a rain, and the like. But there was a time when almost all of what we think of as visual art was to the greater glory of god, and this collection of it is rather fine.

Some of it I recognized – some Dürer woodcuts, rather flagrant in their apocalyptic-ness. Much of it I did not: altarpieces that folded up, cleverly arranged so as to show an arrangement of saints no matter how they were folded; a wide variety of carved wooden crucifixes and pietas and painted lamentations. Over and over again Mary Magdalene washes Jesus’s feet with her hair; over and over again Christ goes to the Mount of Olives, over and over again, disciples gather at his feet, or in darkened rooms too like a tavern in Bohemia to be strictly accurate.

Some of them are lovely, if somber, scenes. Some of them, to a modern eye, read a bit differently than the artist (probably) originally intended. Matthew looks serious, Mark looks as if he is thinking about lunch, Luke has the wary hesitant half smile of someone not sure if the camera is pointing at him, and John seems entirely Over It, thank you. Gathered at the crucifixion, invention seems to have run out when it came to coming up with different expressions of agony or grief for the disciples to display: here profound sorrow, there a grimace of pain, here something more evocative of digestive distress than emotional angst. A Roman soldier in the wrong armour for his place and time flashes the viewer some distinctive side-eye, as if to say “Can you believe this shit?”

I feel a little disrespectful, admittedly, stating these observations out loud…but honestly, that really IS how it looked. Still, it’s a lovely collection, and aside from the inevitable squad of schoolchildren, a pleasantly un-crowded one for our final Prague sight.

Outside is a little sculpture-garden, including this charming little playhouse that is apparently actually one of the sculptures.

I wonder if anyone is allowed to play on it? The school group was nowhere to be seen at the time, so there was nobody around to test the theory.

By now it was getting on to that time, so we headed back to the Maximilian, where we reclaimed our bags and hopped into a cab headed for the main station. Here we thanked our past selves for that run out to Kutna Hora a couple of days ago: nothing like a little practice with the trains to make finding your platform, etc, a little easier. A short wait later and we climbed aboard a train headed for “Wien Hbf,” aka Vienna (the “Hbf” is the typical abbreviation for “Hauptbahnhof” or main train station.)

We had first-class tickets for this trip – an odd quirk of the Prague-Vienna trains is that you can purchase tickets for them through either the OBB (the Austrian transit authority that actually runs the train as far as I can tell) or CD (the Czech rail system, pronounced something like “Chesky drah-hee”)…and the Czech price can sometimes be cheaper for precisely the same seat. As we also bought well in advance, this meant we could easily swing a spot with a bit more leg room for our 4-hour trek.

One thing I remember from my last trains-in-Europe experience is that for some reason one always expects that the borders will feel more distinct than they are – as if somehow crossing from Italy to Germany will result in the grass being a different green or something, which of course is nonsense. In this case, pretty pastoral countryside continued on both sides of the border, broken up occasionally by assorted small towns and the like. The only really notable differences? Signs swap primary languages from Czech to German (meaning I was no longer QUITE functionally illiterate, hooray) and at the last Czech stop we were slightly astonished to see just about everyone else in the car pile out of the train, which lingered a bit longer than normal. Perhaps the staff have to swap when the border changes?

In any case, it was a very comfortable journey, even with minor hiccups like an in-seat food ordering system that didn’t quite “take” when we put our order in for some sandwiches.

Another thing I remember is how striking the differences between train stations could be, and the transition from Prague’s to Vienna’s was marked by a sudden spike in signage, as well as in available staff who could point you toward whatever it was you were looking for – in our case the 13A bus toward Siebensterngasse, which wound through the streets of the city to an area that gradually began to resemble Queen West.

Vienna was described to me as being “basically Toronto” before this trip, though I’m not entirely sure I agree. For one, there is a notable lack of either the kind of glass and steel condo developments that all of residential downtown seems to be gradually turning into or the skyscrapers that make up most of the “business” downtown. Instead, you have relatively tidy blocks of three-to-five story buildings, many of which seem to subscribe to some sort of unspoken (or perhaps it’s quite spoken, and I just don’t know that) European building code: windows shaped just so, and double-glazed after a fashion, with a casement that opens inward and another that opens outward. Facades to be white, or at least aiming for white; signage neat and prominently displayed in blue and white.

Oh, and for a second difference: unlike Toronto’s, the public transit in Vienna actually works. It’s brisk and efficient, just make very sure you have validated your ticket or else you may be liable for a stiff fine.

We hopped off at Siebensterngasse and looked round for our next lodgings, eventually locating the green “Hotel Kugel” sign near the corner. This is a hotel dating back to the 1800s, and a certain retro quality was present throughout its fittings (thankfully, there’s a modern if tiny elevator.) Our room was every bit as frilly as one could possibly hope for in Vienna:

Alas, still no top sheet, but a very welcome fan. A nice view, too:

Once our bags were dropped off safely, we pondered our next course of action, eventually settling on “let’s go get oriented with our first evening, the way we did in Prague.” We’ve been following the Rick Steves guide for this trip, and a ride around the Ringstrasse tram with an audio tour we downloaded seemed like just the thing.

With a little help from Google Maps we worked out the right general direction and set off. Things you notice almost immediately:

  • Traffic lights are back. I don’t think we saw one of these in Prague anywhere; as Jan noted on our food tour, whatever is coming from the right has right of way, and since everyone knows this, voila, no fuss. (Though I admit to having found it disconcerting.)
  • A number of the traffic lights for pedestrians in Vienna represent same-sex couples, waiting patiently (or perhaps snuggling) side by side when the light is red and strolling gaily across when it’s green, with a little heart between them. They’re extremely cute.
  • The streets here seem to have far fewer windings and tangles than in Prague. One gets the sense that more of the growth here was planned rather than organic – and perhaps it was; one doesn’t have to be more than an indifferent student of history to recognize that Vienna was an imperial capital for a very, very long time.

A few blocks away from the Siebensterngasse stop, the street bumped into a little flight of stairs. Curious to see whether these would allow us to cut straight through a block, as the little arched tunnels in Prague often do, we tried them – and found ourselves going down a much, much longer flight of stairs into something labeling itself prominently “Museumsquartier.” (At a guess, this is because, well, there were some museums and galleries here judging by the signs; notably modern art if these were anything to go by.)

The sort of square at the base of the stairs was clearly setting up for some sort of concert, but almost all of the space not populated by workers and steel constructs was taken up by abstract couches in bright purple, populated by the sort of fashionable young people who make me feel rather drab at the best of times, all eager German conversation.

Beyond this, we emerged onto a street fronted by a grand-looking park dominated by a large sculpture of a woman enthroned who reminded me a little of statuary of Victoria, flanked by some fairly spectacular buildings; as a sign nearby read “M. Theresien-platz” I assumed this must be Maria Theresa. (Future Me: I was right, as the next morning would confirm.)

Past this and round a corner we made it at last to the Ringstrasse – the innermost of Vienna’s ring roads that encircles its densest concentration of sights. Here we had a bit of a disappointment: the tram stops here for several blocks had a sort of blue metal cross-like thing mounted over each of them. “Verlassen,” it said. Lost? No. What the hell was that word? I eventually resorted to Google Translate and had an unpleasant surprise: “Abandoned.”

It seems that a chunk of the ring tram is out of commission at the moment. Lovely. Well, so much for THAT plan. Instead we made for the nearest likely source of dinner – a sort of pub-like restaurant with a propensity for collecting beer themed kitsch in a variety of languages. Well. It’d do; we settled in for a reasonably tasty schnitzel and some kind of meat-filled dumplings with sauerkraut and planned our next move.

This was, as it was getting late, simply to do a stroll around the Opera area, taking in the sights. Vienna in the evening was sedate, but in a charming sort of way and around behind the Opera house was one of those things that’s on the Vienna bingo card:

That’s Cafe Sacher, home of the Sachertorte – a dense chocolate cake with a fruity center layer and a ganache-like icing. You may have heard of it? Anyway, why the hell not – we headed in and placed an order for two of them, with a coffee each.

Or a “melange,” rather – something like a cappuccino. Coffee isn’t served here with milk separately as it is in North America; if you want milk in your coffee it’s best to order it in a preparation that includes some.

The tortes were brought to the table by a waitress in an honest to goodness maid outfit, and came with a little seal of officialness, also in chocolate:

Drier than I was expecting, but tasty all the same.

On that note we headed off to bed. Another long day tomorrow.

Have a nighttime view of Vienna or two while you wait for the next post:

Day 4: Opulence, of several kinds

Our final full day in the Czech Republic dawned bright and cool, and we set out with a plan: to try for a non-hotel breakfast at the recommended-by-the-food-tour-folks Cafe Savoy, over in Prague’s Little Quarter. This would, we knew, demand some careful timing, since the other priority for the morning was to visit Prague Castle, and we hoped to beat some of the numerous tour groups to the punch (as much as possible anyway.)

So it was that we found ourselves outside the cafe several minutes before it opened, in the company of a few early-morning businessfolk and a handful of people who had the look about them of tourists like us. After a few minutes, a young fellow in kitchen whites emerged to set out baskets of pansies and a waiter in a straight-up tuxedo (sans jacket) began seeing to seating for everyone.

Having heard the French toast here was to die for, and knowing we had a long day ahead of us, we ordered the “French breakfast,” which was…massive.

It also cost about as much as a nice dinner out in Toronto, but since literally everything was delicious as well, somehow I found it difficult to mind all that much.

As we prepared to leave for another round of heavy walking, I stopped to visit the WC – I mention this purely because the area outside said WC is a glassed-in overlook that lets you watch the crew in the pastry kitchen do their thing. While the placement is disconcerting, it’s pretty cool to watch; I recommend having a look if anyone reading this one day happens to go there.

Next stop: Prague Castle. Sort of. We got on the tram heading the wrong way, but fortunately this was readily corrected.

Our travel book made quite a point of saying “Be at St. Vitus’s Cathedral at nine,” but it wasn’t until our slightly delayed arrival at about 9:10 or so that we discovered why: guess where all the tour groups start? …Yeah. Dodging a crew of Russians and at least two of those big crews of Chinese travelers, we bought our tickets and dove for the cathedral entrance.

It’s curious how much the cathedral feels like the heart of the castle. Perhaps this is simply because the castle is no longer a “working” castle: the rooms where the business of governing was actually done are largely empty of furnishings now, waking up only briefly as tourists come to observe them before rolling over and going back to sleep. Once upon a time, kings were crowned here, in the chapel of St. Wenceslas, where the saint’s bones are interred.

St. Vitus himself is here as well, or at least he’s got a reliquary.

There’s also the biggest of the bells in the area, affectionately known as “Zikmund.”

We wandered for a while, taking in the interior (at least as much as was possible around the already-getting-dense crowds.). Here, I’ll share a few views:

The castle interior itself is much simpler: the hefty architecture the Middle Ages tended toward when it wanted to get things done. There is at least one hall that must at one time have been very grand, though:

And there is also the infamous window where the Defenestration of Prague took place:

Quite a lot of madness from such an ordinary-looking window.

We also got a chance to explore “Golden Lane,” a tiny little medieval shopping street that has partly been re-populated with little dioramas of the sorts of shops that filled the place at various points in history and partly with actual shops of ponderous touristiness.

Notable, for me at least, were a rendering of the house of a medium (above) who was quite popular before she was taken in by the Gestapo (as with so many stories like this, it Did Not Go Well) and of a local journalist and intense fan of old films who used to run screenings out of his living room.

I’m…legitimately not sure at this point how many stories I have heard on this trip that seem to end with some variation on “…and then they were taken by the Gestapo.” That always seems to represent the ending when it comes; an uncomfortable full-stop that makes even reading the plaque feel awkward. As though the curator were darting me an awkward glance before moving on with their description.

As we started down the very, very steep hill that pointed us back toward the city centre, we took a pause to tour Lobkowicz Palace. It’s a pretty place, though not over the top extravagant, and visiting it is, for those reading this who played D&D with me, a very VanDeen-y affair. The noble family of the Prince(s) of Lobkowicz lived here, or at least they did until they lost everything in WWII. Then they got it all back, then lost it again under the communists, then got it back again. Now they run a museum that from the sound of it helps them keep the lights on and restorers available for the ongoing maintenance of their vast stashes of goods.

Said stash includes the expected accoutrements of nobility: fine porcelain, silver, paintings of pastoral scenes and engravings by Piranesi. One room contains a collection of paintings of dogs, apparently something of a family fixation; another is populated with images of birds composed largely of the feathers of the bird in question.

It seems the princes were avid followers of the arts in general; the collection also includes a Mozart rearrangement of Handel’s “Messiah” with notes in his own hand, and several scores dedicated to a prior Prince of Lobkowicz who was, I shit you not, Beethoven’s patron. (Things I learned: originally Beethoven planned to dedicate his “Eroica” to Napoleon. However, by the time it was finished, Beethoven was sufficiently unimpressed that he re-dedicated it to the then current prince of Lobkowicz, striking out his earlier dedication with enough force to rip holes in the paper.)

There’s also a painting of the famous defenestration – or rather, what happened shortly afterward. It approaches the situation from a rather different point of view than other accounts we’ve heard to date, however: here, the nobles who were flung out of the window have fled to the Lobkowicz palace for protection, and a family ancestress is shielding them from the angry horde.

The museum also includes an audio guide narrated with rather endearing earnestness by the current…is it still prince? I’m not sure…with cameos from his wife and mother in law. It’s a curious mix of enthusiasm for the collection and impressive manifestation of privilege (Though I did enjoy the anecdote about his father riding a bicycle up and down the grand halls.) At least the desire to preserve all this for future generations seems to be in earnest, and in that I wish them all the best.

Our next stop was perhaps more amusing than classy: Speculum Alchemiae, a slightly cheesy little attraction that sprang up after massive flooding unearthed an honest to god alchemist’s lab tucked away under one of the local houses.

Prague has a tendency to flood: in fact, the level of the city has been raised a few times over the years, and on some much-older buildings the effects of this can be seen. At the old town hall, what is now the cellar used to be the street level, and the former windows are still clearly visible; here, the house where once an alchemist plied his trade sits several feet below the more modern buildings nearby.

The flood unearthed a series of tunnels, one of which led directly to the castle, and in these, supposedly, documents were found that clued everyone in as to what the place once was. These same documents were then used to reconstruct the way the lab may have looked, long ago. It’s a little bit cheesy, but amusing to visit, complete with glassworks, distillery and storage space for a variety of herbs. And hey, it has a secret bookcase.

Mark bought a small clay phial of something that purports to be an elixir of youth, though I suspect its primary virtues may have less to do with revitalizing the flesh than with adding a cute trinket to a bookcase.

Here we paused for a break at our hotel’s “honesty bar,” after picking up a bottle of water at the nearest convenience store, and I surprised myself by downing almost a litre of it without really stopping. I get the sense I am really burning a lot of water just walking around; so far it’s been very humid everywhere we go.

Today was planned as food tour day, so there was time for just one more stop on the way: the Mucha museum, wherein I got to see real life versions of many of those cheap prints seen in college dorms everywhere, including mine. Some of those posters from his Paris period are a LOT bigger than you’re thinking if you’ve only ever seen the prints, as well; Sarah Bernhardt in Medea may not have been quite life-sized, but she sure can dominate a wall.

Here also Mark and I made the happy discovery that there IS some art we can agree on after all – both of us find things to love in Mucha. For him, there is the interplay of forms, I love the use of colour and the swirling, delicate lines; we both love his knack for expressions and symbolism. This is especially fun when looking at some of his work that comes in sets – seasons, flowers, etc.

In the back of the museum is a movie detailing more about Mucha’s life – patronage, contracts, his distaste for society and his patriotic dreams. (We did not make it out to see the Slav Epic this time, but one of these days I should really look into it.) They had some works I’d never heard of before there, let alone seen – like the rather haunting “Star.” Like the Slav Epic, this one has political meaning as well – Mucha painted it in response to hearing about the suffering of the common folk of Russia post-Bolsheviks.

On the one hand, I feel a bit shallow for enjoying works of his that were, essentially, just advertisements; I cannot imagine hanging the average ad that appears on the TTC in my living room. Then again, I may possibly have bought a print of one of his works for myself. Blame my affinity for the “The Moon” card, perhaps.

This done, we headed to the meeting point for our food tour…which we almost missed, even so, after first getting the place right, then thinking we’d got it wrong, then hurrying back to the right one again.

Our guide for the evening was Jan, a guy about our own age who’d studied briefly in the USA and done translation work in the land of high finance before eventually deciding he’d had enough and switching to full-time foodie tourism. Everyone ELSE on the tour was young ladies from the States, most from LA, and most “between jobs,” though I am uncertain quite what that means exactly. This made parts of the experience a bit odd; for instance, I have never been in a room, ever, where people lit up as visibly as the LA girls did when he mentioned the Kardashians.

Ah well. All of us were there because we liked food, at least, so we had that in common. (And here, guys, I am going to do that thing I roll my eyes at people a bit for doing when they do it in restaurants in Canada…I photographed my food so I could share with you. Those of you this will irritate, feel free to skim over this bit.)

Here are sort of the primary take-aways from the entire affair: The Czechs are trying to re-establish a sort of Czech food identity after Communism. Communist life in the Czech Republic was, for most people, more boring than horrific according to Jan. Certainly the regime did a number on food, standardizing recipes down to the weight of ingredients to be used for each dish. Recipes served lots of people at once (the example he showed us served 100) and were the same pretty much everywhere – so if you didn’t like the bread (or whatever) at one place there was very little point in going anywhere else. Restaurants came in four “levels”; I’m not sure if there was much difference between the recipes available at a level 1 vs a level 4, but the part of me that loves going out to St. Lawrence or wherever finds the entire idea just soul-destroying.

Here’s the other important bit, though: as we all know, food is often about comfort for a lot of us. What do we crave when we want comfort? Food we remember from childhood. And what was childhood if you’re Czech and were born within living memory of, say, 1989? That bland gray age of Communist standardization.

This, plus the legitimate desire to create new food that’s still recognizably Czech, results in an interesting mishmash of nostalgia and enthusiasm, springing forth from kitchens staffed mainly by young Czechs. “Notice how young everyone is at all of the places we go,” he commented – and he was absolutely right.

Our first stop was a place called Mysak, where Jan’s mother had taken him as a child were he to get unusually good marks at the end of a term. This was an example of a place that had been family-run for ages and doggedly kept open throughout communism, only for the owner to pass away without anyone to pass the business to shortly after communism fell. A new generation’s picked it up, however, and it is once again a popular, slightly upscale spot. Here we had a petite open-faced sandwich topped with shrimp – an affluent indulgence in a landlocked country – and a kind of cream-filled glazed cruller called a “venecek” that I think I would have eaten my body weight in given the opportunity:

Here we paused for a bit of chat about pricing. There comes a point for everyone, it seems, where the idea of “what something should cost” becomes fixed in one’s mind. Perhaps about fifty or so. In the Czech Republic, this means that for many, “what food should cost” is “what food cost under communism,” so a lot of older Czechs especially don’t visit places like this because the food seems too expensive. There is certainly a kind of Overton window of costs where an amount of money becomes “a lot” to you; for me that’s about 100 dollars, but for Mark it’s rather higher. I wonder how much things like that change within one’s lifetime? I know $20 was once “a lot” to me, and then $50…Who knows, I suppose.

There is no “bank of mom and dad” in the Czech Republic, either: here, the generational wealth gap exists in the inverse of North America. At home, it’s older generations that tend to have money; here, the reverse. Sometimes this means that these older folks will even be resistant to fixing up a crumbling apartment block because doing so will raise rents: there are some buildings where younger tenants are literally waiting for older ones to die in order to conduct repairs.

On our way to the next stop, we poked our heads in at the main post office for Prague. They are very very serious about not taking photographs in there, so I don’t have any unfortunately, but it’s a surprisingly pretty building. It’s also open 24/7, and is the nexus for quite a few bits of Czech bureaucracy. (Another thing I learned today: Everyone has a mailing address here, even the homeless folks – their messages will just go to the post office proper and it’s their responsibility to check them.)

Stop number 2 of our tour was Kantyna, “the palace of meat,” a former Masonic temple turned fancy butcher shop-slash-eatery where you can order meat by weight and have it brought to you. This place is crazy busy, and a number of tables had reservations marked with numbered bones, but the tour group we were with has a special arrangement whereby sometimes they will set up a card table for those who’ve been on the tour. Appropriately to the setting they brought out a tray of pulled pork, dry-aged sausages, latkes fried in pork fat, and steak tartare.

The latter one eats by first vigorously rubbing the toasted bread with a cut clove of garlic; the garlic was pleasingly spicy, much more so than in Canada. I don’t know what causes that, but I wish I could have some to cook with at home!

We also had a dark lager called “Kozel” here. This is the gateway beer in this part of the world, apparently; the lighter stuff that teenaged girls drink. (Still not really my jam, but I figured if there was ever a “when in Rome” sort of occasion this was it.)

On our way to our next stop we learned another interesting factoid: you know that Jewish quarter we visited? There are still some Jews in Prague, but not many: only 1500 or so officially registered, most over 55. This came up because the former Jewish quarter was home to stop number three: Lokal, a small chain with just a few locations that is riffing on the classic Czech pub.

These are trading on the aforementioned communist nostalgia very hard, naturally, which means that walking into one is a bit like walking into the legion hall at first glance: comfortable if spartan-looking seating, a long bar, painted stencilwork on the wallpaper. The “riffing on” element becomes more apparent when you look more closely at the walls: wood paneling that looks very 70s has been gouged with graffiti-like carvings that are lit from behind. A decorative feature, not defacements.

This is because, as we learned on sitting down, the local pub is a place where you go to do two things, mainly: drink, and talk to your friends, largely to complain about all the things in your life that make you crazy. So there’s no music being played (a difference from Canadian pubs I didn’t register at first), and the food on offer is mostly of the “stuff you serve with beer” variety.

Czechs drink a lot of beer. A LOT. Jan showed us a typical beer-ordering card, a long strip with many, many little outlines of mugs of beer on it. When the waitress sees you’re empty, or running low, she’ll come by with another, marking off one of the outlines, unless and until you explicitly say “no more.” At the end of the night you cash out – a procedure Jan referred to as “Czech dim sum.”

How many beers on the average do Czechs have this way? Eight or nine a night, easily.

We had just the one, this time a Pilsner Urquell lager that came from a giant tank under the bar. There are about six of these active in any pub at a given time, and they will go through three tanks in a night, easily. When refill time comes, a tanker truck full of beer pulls up to the pub and fills ’em up, gas station style.

…What do you eat with all that beer? Well, fried cheese is popular; this is served with tartar sauce (?) and tastes about as awesome as fried cheese generally does. There was also a Hungarian-style goulash, and chicken schnitzel served with a warm, vinegary potato salad.

Here we also learned something that might possibly explain why Prague was so much less crowded than I had anticipated: apparently the Czechs love going to the cottage on holiday weekends as much as Canadians do, so a goodly chunk of the city may have been out for a time.

Next stop, a second meat-themed spot, Nase Maso, for a sample of their meatloaf sandwich.

About this, I cannot say much except that it was very tasty, and they have provided us with the recipe, which I may try one of these days when I have people over. We did learn an interesting factoid about the place, though: there is a wine bar nearby, and you can apparently have the butcher shop grill you a steak and bring it over. (I must confess I rather like the idea of summoning a steak like this, though I didn’t get the chance to test drive it. Ah well. On a future trip perhaps.

Onward, again – and outward in this case, to the neighbourhood of Kalin well outside the touristy zones of the city; rough-but-gentrifying, perhaps the closest Torontonian analogue would be the Junction. Here, tech companies have settled in, and a little crop of restaurants trying out new things have sprung up to serve them. As we headed to our first stop here, we passed a lengthy queue; investigation revealed that playing that night was Bobby McFerrin. (There’s a name I haven’t thought of in a while…)

Next stop, Eska, a trendy-looking spot where we were seated “at the chef’s table,” near the kitchen. Here we were treated first to a gin and tonic crafted with an artisanal gin by a local, along with a seriously adorable little amuse-bouche crafted with radish slices and edible flowers:

I love the water-lily look. This was followed by a modern riff on what is apparently a popular Czech campfire dish: “ash potatoes,” which as the name suggests are potatoes tossed into the campfire ashes to roast. Ours were served a bit more elaborately than that, though:

This was a kind of deconstructed baked-potato affair, and it was seriously delicious. As we waited for our next course, we watched the kitchen doing its thing. (Jan commented “They say there are three things you can watch forever: fire, the sea, and other people working.”)

Perhaps he’s right about that; it was weirdly gratifying to watch the kitchen staff as they boiled, roasted, plated…

The next course was mushroom-oriented: a sort of fermented wheat berry risotto-like substance rich with mushroom flavours.

The Czechs apparently not only eat a lot of mushrooms but forage for them regularly as well; all Czech students receive some basic mushroom education in school, and many towns have a sort of mushroom assistance agency that will help you identify the mushrooms you’ve made it back with. These are staffed by “Unabomber weirdo types,” as he put it, but they’re quite knowledgeable, and foraging can be a way to make some extra cash if you know what you’re doing.

Above: “pre-dessert,” a little nibble before we headed out. Whee!

Our final stop for the evening was the Krystal bistro for a traditional Czech dessert: plum dumplings with butter, poppy seeds, and stewed plums, paired with another local artisanal spirit: a walnut brandy. Both dumpling and brandy were lovely: warm and comforting, buttery, fruity density and woody acidity together.

At the end of the evening Jan had some additional gifts to see us off: tram tickets back to the old town, and a Koh-I-Noor pencil for everyone. These are apparently a Czech innovation, too. File that under things I didn’t know, certainly…

By this time we were so full we were more than happy to just head back to the hotel and collapse for the night, thank you. Anyone thinking of going to Prague who likes food, though: go do this. It was a great time, it was delicious, and I’ll be giving them some good internet ratings when I get back to Toronto.

Tomorrow: we head to Vienna.

Good night, Prague. It’s been fun!

(Please enjoy Mark with this painting of chickens.)